What is a Motte and Bailey doctrine?
Well, we get the concept from the Philosopher Nicholas Shackel who used it to criticize postmodernist philosophy. As he first used it in publication back in 2005, this is a relatively new concept, but others have expanded on it and popularized the term in recent years.
At any rate, Let’s give Shackel the first word on the topic:
A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of land (the Bailey) which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible and so neither is the Bailey. Rather one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.
For my purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed. I think it is evident that Troll’s Truisms have the Motte and Bailey property, since the exciting falsehoods constitute the desired but indefensible region within the ditch whilst the trivial truth constitutes the defensible but dank Motte to which one may retreat when pressed.– Nicholas Shackel “The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology,” page 3.
It seems that a Motte and Bailey consists of a position which comes in roughly two forms; one (the motte) which is apparently true and highly defensible but essentially unremarkable and largely useless at face value, and another (the bailey) which is more exciting but also more dubious. These two variations within a given position enable its proponents to move back and forth between its stronger and weaker versions at will. They typically advocate the motte in contexts where credible criticism is likely but indulge in the bailey when they are on a roll, and in particular is they can expect a friendly audience or readership. In effect, people can be expected to defend the motte but live in the bailey.
That’s the concept, as I understand it, in a nutshell.
Motte and Bailey as a Fallacy: One variation of this criticism treats it as a fallacy. This is the approach taken by Christopher Anadale., Associate Professor of Philosophy at Mt, St. Mary’s University. The “Motte and Bailey fallacy” is also the label you will find in the current version of Wikipedia.
For his part, Shackel rejects the label of a fallacy, suggesting that the term ‘fallacy’ is best applied to arguments whereas the problem of shifting between a motte and a bailey is in fact one that applies to a larger agenda which can produce myriad individual arguments. these may themselves be fallacious or not, depending on the details, but the motte and bailey problem occurs within a larger unit of contested discourse. He prefers to think of this as a kind of doctrine.
…and something tells me ‘discourse’ might not be Shackels favorite word to use here, but it’s my paraphrase and I’m sticking with it.
Note that Shackel also rejects the notion that the motte and bailey problem is just a function of strategic equivocation insofar as that would apply only to shifts in the meaning of a single word whereas he applies this concept to a body of propositions rather than a single proposition or argument. Hence, his consistent preference for the term “motte and bailey doctrine.”
Note that Shackel’s insistence that the motte and bailey problem is larger than a single argument creates some of the problems listed below (namely the invitation to direct the criticism at the patterns of collective movements rather than specific authors or specific texts). One could just as easily say of a motte and bailey doctrine that it manifests itself as a problem precisely when the result of equivocation (or perhaps amphibology) appear in the arguments of a specific party. Applying the notion to a general movement leaves those making the accusation too much room to shift around in their own right.
Principle of Charity: One of the more interesting themes associated with the Motte and Bailey Doctrine has to do with its relationship to the principle of charity.
Suffice to say that relationship is a bit hostile.
The principle of charity, of course, entails the notion that when interpreting someone’s position, we ought to adopt the interpretation which construes their position in the strongest terms consistent with their own stated views on the subject. As the notion of a Motte and Bailey doctrine explicitly addresses the prospect of multiple versions of a given position, it necessarily raises questions about how to weigh those versions relative to one another. The prospect that one is facing a motte and bailey tactic suggests a very different way of handling this question.
When a given position has been identified as a motte and bailey doctrine, this creates a story in which the less defensible versions of the position serve as the true intent of the position while the more defensible versions become a convenient means of dodging the problems of the former. In the face of such a narrative, it makes no sense to focus on the stronger versions of a position. That would be merely playing into the hands of motte and bailey stratagem. It makes more sense to focus criticism on the bailey, and dismiss the motte as a diversion tactic used only to deceive us. In effect, recourse to the accusation that someone has produced a motte and bailey doctrine provides a very convenient excuse to set aside the principle of charity.
If the principle of charity suggests we should favor a charitable interpretation of another person’s position, the prospect that they may be advancing a motte and bailey doctrine suggests that we should assume the worst. Don’t let the bastards retreat to the motte! Keep them in the bailey and kicked their asses!
Details matter of course, and one way to resolve this problem might be to pay very careful attention to the rhetorical strategies of any given source to see if they really are moving back and forth between a motte and a bailey. If they aren’t we apply the principle of charity; if they are, then we, nail them in the bailey.
One problem with that solution is that it ignores the rhetorical force of the motte and bailey narrative as it is currently developing in the culture of net-logics and popular media representations. Whereas Shackel’s own critique of postmodernism includes direct commentary on specific texts by specific authors, many of those using the concept at this point are making up the mottes and baileys which they attribute to intellectual movements at their own convenience. Although logicians have long used made-up examples to illustrate informal fallacies, this practice is constrained at least by the notion that a fallacy normally occurs in a single argument or text. As the problem of a motte and bailey doctrine is explicitly one of larger set of ideas, this invites use of more abstract models when constructing a motte and bailey doctrine for the benefit of an audience or readership. It invites people to draw from a broad range of views when imagining the possibilities, taking inspiration for the motte from one source and that of the bailey from another. Different people (some of whom may be perfectly consistent in their own terms) get smashed together with others whose views are nominally in their own camp to create an imaginary position taken by no-one in particular but easily used as an object lesson on the evils of anyone whose views might sound like theirs. Thus, misplaced concretism combines with motte and bailey narratives to generate a range of stock arguments decimating what are in effect straw man positions, and because the motte and bailey doctrine is NOT contained within a single argument, it if far more difficult to show someone that the refuted position is in fact a straw man. Moreover, the possibility that someone might be advocating a motte and bailey doctrine argues against application of the principle of charity.
The end result is an assumption of guilt with little to stand in its way.
Case in point? In a video entitled “Stealing the Motte: Critical Social Justice and the Principle of Charity,” James Lindsay argues that critical social justice theorists are not entitled to the principle of charity because they do not extend it to others. In a very long-winded diatribe, Lindsey does his best to suggest that the worst possible implications of any give social justice concept are in fact the real point of social justice politics. Lindsey warns his viewers against application of the principle of charity to critical theories advancing social justice, stating repeatedly that in doing so, one builds their motte for them. In the end, he advocates both granting and denying the principle of charity to its advocates, but the former is little more than a palliative rejoinder; the substance of his entire video is the claim that one really cannot afford to extend the principle of justice to critical theorists. They must be bombed in the bailey so to speak, thus mixing his metaphors a bit, but anyway…
On a more substantive note: Harris Randy accused Shackel himself of violating the principle of charity in his critique of post-modernism. I won’t recount the argument here, but I will say that the entire discussion is an improvement over the use of the motte and bailey narrative to castigate a broad range of views. Shackel targets specific thinkers and engages in textual analysis to show that those individuals have themselves shifted back and forth between a motte and a bailey. Whether or not he his critique is sound is another question. Randy clearly does not believe it is, but in any event, this discussion has a lot more substance to it than the many sloppy applications of this concept to the cullture wars of the modern era.
Speaking of Culture Wars…
Right Wing Politics: The more I look at this concept, the more I am struck by the consistently partisan bent of those using it as a criticism. The overwhelming majority of its uses do seem to be coming from moderate conservatives to far right thinkers targeting aspects of left wing politics. Every now and then, we’ll see a counter-example. Even these right wing sources will throw us a bone with the occasional criticism of their own camp, but that might be seen as paying the price of legitimizing their own critical weapon. Suffice to say, most of the prominent sources using motte and bailey doctrines have been directing it against left wing politics.
The actual politics of postmodernism is (unsurprisingly) complex and difficult to pin down, but I do think it’s fair to suggest its proponents are normally thought of as falling on the left side of the political spectrum, So Shackel’s own contribution seems to start things down that path. Christopher Anadale‘s video treating this as a fallacy also focuses on conservative Christian conflicts with left wing political views. (Indeed, the idea of reforming church teachings on the subject of homosexuality would seem to be his prime example of a motte and bailey doctrine). In fact, Anadale is very clearly presenting the entire topic from the standpoint of arguing a conservative Catholic position in a range of subjects. Two articles (“Social Justice And Words, Words, Words” and “All In All, Another Brick In The Motte“) written in the Slate Star Codex helped to popularize the notion of motte and bailey doctrines, both of which focused on the use of the concept to explain shifts in the meaning of social justice politics. I’m not entirely sure of the politics behind this blog, but in this case at least, the author is expressing concerns about left wing politics. In July of 2020, right wing news aggregate, Real Clear Investigations, published an article by John Murawski, entitled “The ‘Motte & Bailey’: Political Jousting’s Deceptive New Medieval Weapon,” the main substance of which is a story about the increasing use of motte and bailey tactics in social justice tactics. And then, of course, there is the James Lindsay video, already mentioned. Lindsay himself, is a dedicated opponent of social justice advocacy, and of critical social justice theory. His pranks on lefty academic publications are legend! So, it should be no surprise that he would employ this concept as an attack against his favorite targets.
Hell, I even used this concept myself to critique the notion of white privilege, so I guess I can’t claim to be an exception to the pattern. I mean, I don’t think of myself as a conservative, far from it, but thus far, my only serious effort to use the concept parallels the larger trend of conservative thinking on this subject.
It is by no means obvious that the notion of a motte and bailey doctrine cuts only one direction; it is perfectly capable of deployment against conservative and far right views. Most recently, it’s tempting to suggest that Trump supporters have reproduced the pattern when it comes to the 2020 election. In the case the bailey would be the notion that the election was stolen, Trump is still the legitimate President and Biden is just a pretender whereas the motte would be healthy concern for the integrity of our electoral system. (…we just want to ensure the ecltion is fair. Shouldn’t you be concerned about that too?) At least that’s my favorite candidate for a right wing motte and bailey.
This suggestion too would be subject to the concerns about abstract objects of criticism mentioned above. I am sure some Trump supporters stay in the motte and some stay in the bailey, but we only really have a problem if they slip conveniently back and forth between these two positions. I may have a sense that they do, but no, I haven’t gone through a list of right wing pundits and politicians to see if I can pin down just how many of them really meet the criteria necessary to justify this accusation. So, my own suggestion too shouldn’t be treated as anything more than that; it is a concern about a possible application of this criticism to right wing politics.
Can I advance that accusation with confidence?
In any event, the possibility exists that we could apply the notion of a motte and bailey doctrine to a broad range of intellectual positions, including those of moderate conservatives and far right political sources. the fact remains, though that this critical tool has thus far been useful mainly in criticism of left wing targets. This could reflect a bias in the tool of criticism, an artifact of its diffusion through the public domain, a serious problem with left wing politics, or an unresolved feature of the problems left wing politics aims to address. Hell, I’m sure it could be a few other things as well. The fact remains that this seemingly neutral critical theme has been, to date, used primarily against left wing targets. Why that is, remains something of an open question.
Normalizing a Novel Criticism: As an aside; this whole story seems to present us with an interesting case study in the emergence of a putatively neutral or neutralish instrument of critical thinking. The notion of a motte and bailey doctrine begins with a distinctively polemic attack on a broad range of philosophical positions, and it has been applied ever more consistently to political movements loosely associated with those positions. We could easily see this as just another narrative device used to cast left wing politics in a negative light, and yet the potential to see this a a general tool of criticism does exist. Right-leaning critics are thus faced with an odd dilemma; they want to use this club to beat the left, but the club becomes more powerful if they spread the notion that this weapon can be used against just about anybody, even them. Watching them put out the occasional criticism directed at their own camp thus becomes an interesting study in political priorities.
Who goes under the bus to help power-up the weapon?
Lets Extend that Metaphor!: It’s worth noting that the problem with mottes and baileys as those using this concept normally apply it is consistently one of people using the motte to avoid hard questions about the bailey. It is a concern about people who use a strong (and likely true) position to evade questions about a weak (and likely false) position. We hear complaints about those who defend the motte and then come out after the battle to live in the bailey. What we don’t hear about is the reverse. We don’t hear about those who loot the bailey, never touch the motte, and go home claiming victory.
My point here is that shifts in meaning can be manipulated from the other direction too. People can and do attack the sloppy versions of a position without touching its most substantive versions, then proclaim themselves the victor. (I believe this is often called “Weak-manning” the issue. It is distinct from the fallacy of a straw man insofar as a straw man is fake position made up by the critic for the sole purpose of undermining a stronger position actually taken by a real person. In the case of weak-manning, there are people who actually advocate the target of the criticism, but their are stronger, smarter arguments out there and the critic knows it.
Weak-manning is little other than the flip-side of the motte and bailey doctrine.
We could just as easily call it plundering the bailey.
Ad Homineming the Motte: There is yet another concern about the use of this criticism. Accusing someone of employing a motte and bailey doctrine comes close to an ad hominem-circumstantial, particularly if one uses it to avoid showing exactly how the bailey-version of a position is wrong. Once again, Shackel put forward specific arguments in an effort to show that the bailey of postmodernism is wrong. Those following in his footsteps often fail to do so, relying instead on the their chosen audience to dismiss views they regard as unworthy of consideration. In many of the examples now flourishing all across the net, it is sufficient to name the objectionable position knowing full well that one is preaching to the choir, so to speak, and they will regard the matter as settled to begin with. The end result is a story about the other person’s bias, one which assumes the error of his ways rather than demonstrating it as constructive criticism ought to do.
News Media: One area in which I think it’s fair to suggest that motte and bailey doctrines are produced on a regular basis would be in the news media. Time and again, one encounters stories under the label of an inflammatory (and often inaccurate) title. The actual article may in fact include more factual information more reasonably argued, but its title has been spun up to get the attention of an audience or a reader. In effect, the title of a news story is the bailey, whereas the body of the story itself (or at least some of its middle passages) would serve as the motte.
One example of this would be the Real Clear Investigations article mentioned above; its title suggests the phenomenon of a motte and bailey doctrine is a new weapon whereas article itself explicitly states that the pattern of argumentation is not new, but that it is becoming more common as a result of social media. In effect, the title amounts to a wildly inaccurate claim whereas the article itself contains a more reasonable version of the story.
It should also be said that dedicated partisan news sources will of course exaggerate this pattern still more than others. If you are reading Breitbart News on the right or the Palmer Report on the left, you are likely to see a wildly partisan headline over an article that contains something a little more reasonable. Of course another layer of shifting positions typically underlies this wherein a partisan publication will take a news item from the Associated Press, spin that into a partisan account of its significance. This partisan account is then spun-up once again to come up with the inflammatory headline. The end result is often a title that is wildly inconsistent with the substance of the original news story.
I suppose it’s kind of fitting that the bailey would be found in the middle of such articles.
What makes this pattern particularly egregious is the fact that so many people share links to news stories based on their feelings about the titles. Sometimes folks don’t even read the article before sharing, or they read only a few paragraphs into it, never making it to the brass-tacks account buried in the middle of the story.
Semantics All the Way Down: One interesting feature of Shackel’s approach to this would be the role of definitions in his initial argument. He bases a lot of his criticism of postmodernism on the notion that various postmodern thinkers have arbitrarily redefined key terms such as ‘truth’ to mean something else; in this case; ‘power.’ Shackel thus accuses them of Humpty-Dumptying the words in question. This is interesting for a couple of reasons:
As the problem of the Motte and Bailey doctrine is explicitly a question about shifts in meaning, this creates an iconic relationship between the problem he is talking about and the specific evidence he first uses to make his case. (I’m not even sure what to make of this; I just find it interesting.)
On a more problematic note; definitions are notoriously arbitrary to begin with. One needn’t embrace radical subjectivism or even a pragmatic definition of truth to suggest that words can be redefined for a number of reasons. Shackel’s writing seems to suggest that there is some underlying objective reality that is denied in this practice of redefining the meaning of words, but no such reality exists and one needn’t be a post-modernist to see it that way.
…unless I have under-estimated the posty bona fides of Ferdinand de Saussure.
One way of thinking about the problem of rationality is to frame it as a question of whether or not it is possible to get an objective or rational account of the world around us while starting with a semiotic system in which the significance of any given thing is arbitrary? I’ve certainly met people who think the answer is ‘yes,’ just as I’ve met people who think the answer is ‘no,’ but if Shackel means to separate the rationalist from the irrationalist, semantics would seem to be an ill-suited ground for doing so.
Might as well build your bailey in a swamp!
There is at least one other way to support Shackel’s critique of post-modernism and that would be to suggest that the redefinition accomplished by folks such as Foucault is never really complete. It isn’t even intended to be so. If Foucault defines ‘truth’ as power, his subsequent usage is at best agonistic, gaining much of its significance from a tension with more common definitions. His approach becomes absurd in Shackel’s treatment precisely because Shackel takes him quite literally whereas it has always seemed to me that Foucault wants us to retain a little of the more common sense of the term. It’s an equivocal approach to be sure, but the problem is not entirely a function of strategic manipulation.
In effect, this version of Shackel’s critique would amount to the claim, not that there is something objectively wrong with redefining words like ‘truth,’ but that the methodologies in question really don’t really do that all, opting instead to introduce an ironic significance into their use of language, thus splitting the significance of their words into a indefinite variety of possible implications. From this point of view, the motte and bailey problem would be just one of many possible shifts in meaning stemming from post-modern approaches to rhetoric.
This would give Shackel a workable angle against postmodernism without committing him to naive realism and a rather impoverished sense of semiotics.
Mixed Metaphors: It’s worth noting that those talking about motte and bailey doctrines typically use the terms ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ in a manner someone different from other uses of the contrast. In motte and bailey talk, a strong position is one that is likely to be regarded as true, and in most cases, this means a bland and uninteresting statement, one that doesn’t risk being wrong. In contrast, the weak statements in motte and bailey narratives are those that can easily be shown to be false, which usually means that these are the claims that appear more controversial. This flies directly in the face of other conventions wherein the stronger claim is taken to be the one that risks more, claims more, and gives us more to think about. Think about ‘weak’ versus ‘strong’ atheism or ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ agnosticism. Another example might be the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ or any number of instances in which people have to distinguish between a bold claim that actually invites people to shift their understanding of a topic and a more bland claim that could be called a ‘trolls truism’ in Shackel’s treatment. What Shackel calls ‘strong’ others might call weak and visa versa.
This is a trivial problem, but it’s worth noting that what counts as strong and what counts as weak in the motte and bailey problematique is just the opposite of the conventions used in vocabulary often used to make very similar distinctions.
Last Stand at Landover: The spirit of Nathan Poe haunts this approach to the topic right here, though it appears that Shackel missed it (or chose not to acknowledge it). Of course only a damned Heathen would mention this at all, and I shall surely burn in Hell for doing so.
Damn me anyhow!